Local officials optimistic they can reach deal with Lemieux

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Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato, left, and Gov. Ed Rendell talk with reporters before entering a meeting with Penguins owner Mario Lemieux to discuss keeping the NHL team in Pittsburgh.
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Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Penguins owner Mario Lemieux makes a statement to the media after meeting with Gov. Ed Rendell, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl to discuss their plan to help the NHL team to build a new arena.
Click photo for larger image.

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Comments from the participants in the arena financing discussion following today's meeting at the State Office Building in Pittsburgh:

Mr. Lemieux

Mr. Onorato and Gov. Rendell

Earlier in the day, Mr. Onorato provided background on the discussions that would occur in the evening:

Why the Penguins should stay in Pittsburgh

Time to do a deal

Penguins owner Mario Lemieux expressed optimism following a 90-minute meeting today with local and state leaders working to cobble together a plan that would keep the hockey team in Pittsburgh.

In brief remarks following the meeting in the State Office Building, Downtown, Mr. Lemieux said it was important to get past the frustrations that have plagued his seven-year ownership of the team as he attempt to secure a new arena.

"I'm optimitic with the meeting we had today," he said following discussions with Gov. Ed Rendell, Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl.

Officials would not disclose specifics of how the local plan for funding an arena may have changed from what has been proposed. But both Mr. Onorato and Mr. Ravenstahl said they were optmistic because of what transpired today, in the first face-to-face meeting among the principals.

"We feel we're competitive with Kansas City. We're confident we have a very competitive deal," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

The participants said they will meet again, but no date was set today.

The Penguins will be able to move into a brand new arena in Kansas City, pay no rent, and keep building revenues, such as concessions and parking money, under updated terms unveiled today.

Under the latest offer, the Penguins would not have to invest $27 million to buy into the management agreement, as earlier had been reported. Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which invested $54 million in the new Sprint Center, told reporters at a press conference in Kansas City today the Penguins would not have to buy into the deal.

Before the newest details emerged, Mr. Onorato said the Pittsburgh plan for an arena is "in striking range" of what Kansas City is offering.

This afternoon's meeting could be classified as the most important face-off Mr. Lemieux ever took. Mr. Lemieux and his ownership group are anxious to replace Mellon Arena, the oldest building in use in the NHL.

Yesterday, Mr. Lemieux was in Kansas City along with co-owner Ron Burkle and team president Ken Sawyer to get a look at the new Sprint Center, which is on schedule to open in October and is seeking an anchor tenant.

Numbers were dangled by Mr. Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which invested $54 million to operate Kansas City's Sprint Center.

"This by no means is a sure thing for Kansas City," Mr. Lieweke told the Kansas City Star. "Chances are better than not they work this out in Pittsburgh. But if they don't, we have to prove to them they don't need to look any further than Kansas City. We're not stealing a team. We're giving these guys a backup in case they cannot find the right deal in Pittsburgh. My personal opinion is they're going to be blown away by what they see in Kansas City. It's a great city, it's a great building, and it's a fantastic deal for somebody."

The starting point for today's meeting in Pittsburgh is Mr. Rendell's plan, commonly called Plan B. It had called for the Penguins to pay $8 million up front and $4 million a year for 30 years, or a total commitment of $128 million. It is not known how much of that plan remains and how much it will change.

Gov. Rendell said that, based on the losses that the Penguins have accummulated over the last few years, he is willing to alter the plan.

Mr. Onorato, in the morning meeting, was adamant that no taxpayer dollars would be provided. He noted that the Regional Asset District funding that was used to help the Steelers and Pirates would not be used for the Penguins. However, a funding stream from legalized gambling, which was not available when those teams built new playing venues, is available now.

Before talks have started, Mr. Onorato said that $230 million toward a $290 million arena is already on the table.

Gov. Rendell said there would be no "free arena" for the Penguins. He said all of the teams that have built new facilities in Pennsylvania have contributed "significant" dollars to the projects.

Although he can't say for sure the franchise is staying, Mr. Onorato noted that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said he wants the Penguins -- with their 40-year tradition, two NHL championships, a core of young talent featuring Sidney Crosby and strong fan base -- where they are.

"The NHL's preference is for the Penguins to remain in Pittsburgh as long as there are two things in place -- a new arena and a lease that's suitable for the Penguins to be competitive," Mr. Onorato said. "It plays to our favor. The team is here. The NHL would have to approve a move."

Mr. Lemieux has publicly expressed his frustration at failing to secure a new arena over the past seven years, but none of the team owners and none of the political powers were in place when arena proposals were first bandied about in 1998.

"I know he's upset," said Mr. Onorato, who publicly reached out to Mr. Lemieux when the Isle of Capri deal fell through. "We have to get beyond that. Let's forget about the past."

More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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